"Ill-informed demands for unspecified action are counterproductive, and it is dangerous to let the rebels believe that they have a supporting army when they don't," writes British economist Daniel Davies in great commentary today at the Guardian's Comment is free
There is apparently going to be a major "Save Darfur" march across the USA on September. Since the "Save Darfur Coalition" clearly have their hearts in the right place, I don't want to sound like I'm criticising them. However, I am very worried that the coalition seems to be quite short of a specific plan for saving Darfur, and is thus rather vulnerable to being exploited by people who do not have the best interests of Darfur at heart. (This would hardly be the first time that a well-intentioned humanitarian campaign got hijacked by dangerous ideologues.) For this reason, I suggest below a few concrete proposals and outline the dangers posed by the current campaign.
In May, I was writing about the peace agreement in Darfur as the only realistic prospect for improving the situation there and suggesting that developed world commentators should shut up for a while and give it a chance. It appears that I was doubly wrong; nobody shut up and it did not have a chance. There was a period in June and early July when the level of violence was definitely abating and it looked as if the holdout groups could be brought into the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA), but instead, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) has fallen apart into a myriad of factions and a new and extremely violent guerrilla force (the National Redemption Front or NRF) has been formed. Things are now, according to Jan Egeland and Jan Pronk, the two commentators who I trust the most - as bad as they have been for at least two years.
Although the situation is as bad or worse than it was before the peace agreement, it is now bad in a different way. Most of the violence is now being carried out not by the Sudanese state and Janjaweed irregular militias, but by the various rebel group factions.
Drawing distinctions can get quite confusing. The convention is that each SLA faction is named after its main commander. Thus, SLA/Minawi is Minni Minnawi's faction, which is the largest, mainly identified with the Zarghawa tribe, and which signed the peace agreement. (I use the word "tribe" because it is conventional, but note that it is a racially loaded word and these groups ought to be thought of as ethnicities rather than as organised tribal power structures.)
During the Abuja peace talks, Abdel Whalid Mohammed el-Nur split from Minawi, forming the group that is now known as SLA/Whalid or SLA/Nur (and which is better represented among the Fur tribe). The SLA/Nur also split during the talks, as 19 of its military commanders accused Nur himself of harbouring dictatorial ambitions. This group is known as SLA/G19.
As well as the SLA, the other main rebel grouping was the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), a group which had its roots in Hassan al-Turabi's Islamist movement, but which appeared (to Jan Pronk at least) to have dropped most of its specifically Islamic demands in the peace negotiations and probably ought to be regarded as a Sudanese political movement rather than a Darfuri nationalist one. The JEM has always been very violent, opposed to peace, and has always seemed to be very well resourced with weapons and money. It has now blocked with SLA/G19 to form the National Redemption Front (NRF), and the worst of the violence over the last few weeks has been taking place as the NRF has taken over territory in North Darfur that was previously held by SLA/Minnawi.
The situation in the refugee camps has become unspeakably grim. SLA/Nur has allegedly been press-ganging men into joining their militia, while other rebel factions, private militias and freelance Janjaweed have been running riot around the camps, attacking and raping women as they venture out to collect firewood. The proportion of Sudan that is accessible to aid agencies keeps shrinking, and the donor community has failed to fund the aid effort properly. Mass starvation is now imminent.
The Khartoum government have not actually been responsible for the majority of the violence. However, they also bear their share of responsibility for the current disaster. Most press coverage appears to be criticising them most severely for refusing to allow a UN peacekeeping force to be brought in. However, they have stubbornly required that every rebel group sign the DPA before they are prepared to negotiate with them, which has resulted in the effective disbanding of the Ceasefire Commission and made diplomacy far more difficult than it needed to be. Even worse, Khartoum has decided that by failing to sign the agreement, the holdout rebel factions have become "terrorists" and subsequently permitted the Sudanese national army to suppress them. Observers in north Darfur have been witnessing the amassing of troops and helicopters, suggesting a forthcoming attack on the NRF forces in support of SLA/Minnawi. Such a large attack would be bound to have significant civilian casualties, even if carried out with the best of intentions, and the world is right not to trust the Sudanese government.
So what is to be done? Well, the demand that has been made for the last several months is for a UN peacekeeping force to be put into Sudan. But this is not nearly specific enough. A UN peacekeeping force is not a panacea and has no specific magical ability to keep peace. In order to do better than the existing AU force, any UN peacekeeping force would have to either a) be much larger or b) have very different mission terms and rules of engagement.
The first of these possibilities - a much bigger UN peacekeeping force - raises as many questions as it answers. The implicit message from a number of western governments is that they are not prepared to fund the African Union mission properly, but would make much more resources available for a UN mission. I don't understand why anyone would take this point of view. There is no reason to believe that African troops are incompetent, or that they are incompetently led, or that they are partisan. The international community just seems to be allergic to funding a mission to Darfur unless it is the UN getting the credit. This seems so incomprehensible to me that I have to believe that the international community is being insincere, and that they are using the lack of a UN force as a fig leaf to cover up a general reluctance to commit resources. I'm agnostic here. The important issue is clearly to get a properly resourced peacekeeping force guarding the refugee camps as soon as possible. It's very doubtful that any feasible size of peacekeeping force could have a material effect on the factional conflicts, but genuine help could be given here.
The second possibility - that a UN peacekeeping force could have different mission terms or rules of engagement - is part of the whole problem. If we look through the rhetoric about "colonialism", the reason that Khartoum doesn't want a UN mission in Sudan is that they suspect that such a mission would at a minimum start arresting them on International Criminal Court charges and quite likely be the prelude to a removal of the Khartoum government and a partition of Sudan into separate countries.
A lot of the organisations affiliated to the Save Darfur coalition do in fact want to see Sudan broken up, and this is one of the first reasons why I think that some of the statements of the coalition have been highly counterproductive to the aim of getting a proper peacekeeping force put in place. When people like Eric Reeves start talking about a "non-consensual deployment of UN troops" (I don't know why he can't bring himself to use the word "invasion"), and are treated as mainstream commentators by the Save Darfur lobby, it is not surprising that the Sudanese government is suspicious of the true motives of the humanitarian lobby.
Neither Pronk nor Egeland view a "non-consensual deployment" as a realistic option, because of course it isn't. It would involve fighting a war against the Sudanese army which could only end in Sudan requiring a similar reconstruction effort to that needed in Iraq or Afghanistan, neither of which have gone so well as to make a neutral observer think it would be a good idea to try a repeat in a country with poor food security. Looking back at the list of what is going wrong in Darfur, they are all currently consequences of anarchy.
Promoting more anarchy seems like a bad idea. Sudan does not yet exhibit all the worst problems of Somalia, Iraq Afghanistan and Congo, but it has a plentiful supply of nascent warlords, insurgents, Islamists and border resource disputes, so it could yet show us exactly how bad things could be. Some things, unfortunately, cannot be achieved by force, and the fact that their absence is an intolerable state of affairs does not in and of itself mean that it is worth giving violence a try anyway.
As well as making it diplomatically more difficult for a peacekeeping force to be put in place, there are two more baleful effects of the more militant wing of the "Save Darfur" lobby. First, there is a kind of catch-22 effect created by the lobby's insistent focus on the evils of the Khartoum regime as the sole cause of the problems. In order to create a meaningful peace in Darfur, everyone has to sign up to the DPA or its successor treaties. However, at present, every group that signs the agreement is being treated as if they were cronies of Khartoum and therefore obvious enemies of the Darfurians. This has to be unconstructive; at present, humanitarian organisations are being stigmatised and having their impartiality called into question, which interferes with their ability to do their job.
And more perniciously, as I said in the earlier piece, there is a real danger of creating perverse incentives for the Darfurian rebels (who, one has to emphasise, are responsible for the current slaughter more than anyone). If a mass movement in the west appears to be simultaneously calling for a decapitation of the Khartoum government and denigrating the peace agreement, then this must surely encourage the rebel groups to follow the NRF strategy rather than joining the peace agreement.
So what should we be asking for? I can't think of anything more sensible or realistic than Jan Egeland's suggestions, which I'd summarise as follows:
1. A diplomatic effort to persuade Sudan's government to stand down its military operation and allow a UN force into Sudan. This is not as macho and satisfying as an invasion but it will be less horribly destructive. Even if this means giving commitments about ICC prosecutions that turn to ashes in our mouths, it is the only way forward that does not involve disastrous loss of life. Certainly, if the UN is going to retain the credibility of its peacekeeping operations, it needs to establish the principle that they are not fronts for an invasion and regime change, and anyone interested in humanitarian intervention ought to respect that.
2. Proper funding of the African Union mission and the relief effort, now and unconditionally. It is a scandal that funding has been delayed for these vital operations because of the negotiations over the UN force. Contrary to what news reports might suggest, the full title of AMIS is not "The Poorly Equipped And Funded African Union Mission". It is poorly equipped and funded because a lot of donor nations made big promises to fund it. A promise they have not kept.
3. Respect for the peace process and even-handedness among all parties to the conflict. As Egeland says, there can be no military solution. No indication should be given at all to the NRF that they can gain more outside the peace process than within it, or that they can depend on a UN force being sent to protect them if they start an attack on SLA/Minnawi. Similarly, Khartoum and SLA/MInnawi need to be held to the terms of the ceasefire they have agreed and not allowed to believe that they can weasel out of it by pretending to be carrying out anti-terrorist activities.
Once more, Darfur is on a knife edge, and once more there is considerable potential to make things worse. And so once more, there is a positive duty on all western commentators to be sure that before opening their mouths, they know what they are talking about.
Great. Well said Daniel. Thanks.